As Girls Rock Sacramento (GRS) prepared for their 5th season of music camp, they had no idea the obstacles that would lie ahead of them. In fact, none of us in the music industry did. When our nation was made aware of the first cases of COVID-19 back in February, no one could have predicted that by the summer of 2020 everything would be shut down and citizens would be expected to practice physical distancing, and ordered to wear masks in public. Businesses were forced to close, and schools switched to an at home, online curriculum.

And by April, GRS founder Larisa Bryski and board members had a tough decision to make this year – do they cancel the summer camp schedule, or figure out how they could facilitate a totally viral experience? After all, many campers had pre-registered months prior fully expecting an in-person, on hands music education experience. Plus, there was always the big showcase at the end of the week which usually took place at a local Sacramento music venue. Hundreds of family and friends would show up to cheer on each new band as they show off their newly created original song. How would they be able to teach each participant how to play their instrument, create a new song, and perform it… all online?

I asked Bryski how they came to the decision to press on with a viral camp, and what impact this had on her as the Camp Director:

“When I realized that we were going to have to cancel both of our in-person camps this summer, I broke down. Then my sadness turned to denial, and then… anxiety. I thought of the 30+ campers who’d already signed up—many of them returning campers, and how I’d have to tell them and their families that there would be no rock camp this year,” said Bryski. “That was when I reached out to our board for guidance. We also reached out to our Youth Advisory Board (made up of current and former teen campers) and asked for their thoughts. I’m not sure how it happens, but this particular group of womxn is always able to light a fire under me that makes me think anything is possible, so I soon had hope that we could move forward with some sort of virtual camp with program modifications.”

It was hope, support, dedication, and community that fueled their forward momentum to create the first ever virtual week long music camp; one for the mini camp, and one for the teen camp. Bryski and her board reached out to their incredible roster of volunteers, and in 24 hours secured the most badass female musicians, industry experts, and workshop leaders who came armed with laptops and tablets  – all ready to rock! Next up was revamping the structure of events for the participants. 

The overwhelming consensus was that camp must go on, whether via Zoom or carrier pigeon or whatever, because it was …needed now more than ever.

Bliss (they/them) of the Yeah! Rocks Camp in Tennessee taught the Gender 101 Workshop.

According to Bryski, the biggest challenge with the program was coming up with a camp schedule that allowed for as many screen breaks as possible, and without losing important rock camp content. For the Mini Camp week, they devised a 3-hour camp day with three 15-minute screen breaks. This was especially important for the twelve campers ranging in age from 7 to 11 years old. For the Teen Camp week, the program was crafted around seventeen campers, ages 12 to 16 with a 5 ½ hour camp day allowing four 15-minute breaks, and one ½-hour lunch break. Each morning Bryski would send out a group email that included the day’s curriculum providing each individual ZOOM link pertaining to the lesson plan. 

Due to the inability to physically be together, some of the usual camp activities and extra band rehearsal time were scrapped, while many of their favorite and most important workshops were kept; including Self-Defense (taught by yours truly), Music Marketing taught by Raychel Sabath with Live Nation in Sacramento, and Gender 101 taught by Bliss from the Yeah! Rock Music Camp in Tennessee. New to the roster was the Uke University, and Anti-Racism Workshop, which were well-received by the campers and their parents. Volunteers drove around and hand-delivered a care package for every participant prior to camp, which contained a FUNbook, a brand new Mahalo brand ukulele to keep, music instruments (with accessories on loan), art supplies, and a special camp t-shirt. The FUNbook was created by two volunteers which contained puzzles, hand-drawn coloring pages, chord charts, and activism worksheets.

For each camp, Bryski positioned herself upstairs in a small corner of her home with a newly-upgraded GRS Zoom account, a laptop with a mic + interface, a pair of good headphones, and a wall covered with schedules, camper contact info, volunteer lists, etc. Each morning for those two weeks, she said goodbye to her husband and daughter downstairs and went to work in GRS command central. “It was weird,” said Bryski, “but it worked, except when there were interruptions from cats climbing onto my keyboard. Did I wear my pajama pants pretty much every day? Maybe.”

Her big leap of faith paid off, as both camp weeks were a success, despite the occasional hiccups and expected glitches that come along with any online event – especially involving so many moving parts. The participants ranged from GRS alumni to campers brand new to the experience and braving the uncharted waters. The teen camp comprised of three bands who utilized their collective creativity to present in the final showcase a song audio recording, and two music videos! The full showcase video is featured at the end of this article.

I reached out to the campers, parents, and coaches asking them to share with me their experience with participating in an online music camp. Here is what some of them had to share:

Jennifer Gibson – “I was so impressed with the performances this weekend and am amazed at how much my daughter Olivia learned from her coach, Karlee in just one week. It is a testament to Karlee’s patience and skill as a teacher. Olivia was excited about camp every day and it was nice to see her engage another creative side of herself. Thank you to Karlee and GRS for all you did for her and the other girls!”

Kathy Van Dyne – “I am the grandmother of a camper. My husband and I learned about Girls Rock Sacramento from friends whose granddaughter participated in a Girls Rock Camp for two years in Iowa. We discovered that there was a similar program in Sacramento, and signed up our two granddaughters for the mini camp and teen camp as birthday gifts. We signed them up in February before knowing how Coronavirus would change our lives.

Our teen granddaughter came to our home each day for her camp experience. We could not have been more impressed the week’s program — from delivery and pick up of the drums, to responsiveness to questions, and the fantastic daily schedule. In addition to instrument instruction, band meetings, and Uke university; the variety and relevance of all the additional sessions and quality of presenters surpassed our expectations. Each day seemed to be well paced with 15 minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. Our granddaughter was so engaged that she often used break time to practice the drums or ukulele.”

Juliette (camper):  “I play keys for our band, Stick It To The Man, and our song is, ‘The Man’. Though this was my third camp with Girls Rock Sacramento I’m still amazed every time at how wonderful camp is in so many aspects. The people are all so accepting and supportive, we get to learn a new instrument or keep working on one, attend many interesting workshops on things such as body image, self defense and music marketing, grow as an artist and a person and just rock out and learn that we rock! I am so grateful for the GRS staff for putting together this incredible camp and environment (even as a virtual camp this year I enjoyed it so much) and I can’t wait to be back next year!”

Jessica Malone (she/her), artist and one of the coaches for Uke University.

Jessica Malone – “This summer I had my first experience as a coach at Girls Rock Sacramento and it was an absolute joy to co-coach Ukulele University with Ruby Fradkin. Full disclosure, I was nervous in the beginning because it was not only my first time teaching a whole class, it was ZOOM which is also new to me. One we got started, I realized I was surrounded (virtually) by an incredibly supportive and encouraging group of women and my nerves quickly changed to excitement. The students were so much fun to work with. They were courageous, kind, talented, positive, and constantly showering each other with compliments and words of encouragement. The coaches were always there helping and supporting one another. Larisa Bryski’s determination to make camp happen this summer in the midst of everything that’s going on in the world is truly inspiring. She forged new ground, with a positive attitude, crazy good leadership/organizational skills and it was a huge success. I am grateful to be a part of the Girls Rock Sacramento Fam!”

Aisley (camper) – “I have been participating in Girls Rock Sacramento camp for all 5 years now and it has always been in person. I am very proud of all the girls as a lot of them were newcomers. They figured out the ropes and did amazing. It was weird not knowing any of my band mates and having to get to know them over ZOOM. Thankfully, after a week me and my band found a way to bond – and on the last day I became very close with each and every one of them.  All bands got to show their song they made. All in all, the experience was interesting but I am glad I found a way to meet amazing people in my band while still being over ZOOM.”

 In closing, Larisa Bryski had this to say about the overall experience: “I am so proud of our team at Girls Rock Sacramento for making this summer happen for our campers, and I’m even more proud of our campers for being brave for themselves and patient with us. They were all just fierce and beautiful and creative. Volunteers and parents rallied and went above and beyond to show their support too. If we must do it this way again next year, we will be ready, but of course my hope is that this will be our one and only virtual summer.”